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Bullshit Freelance Writing Advice (Why Writers Believe It & What You Really Need to Know)

Read Time: 12 min

Calling Bullshit on Bad Freelance Writing Advice - All Freelance Writing

Especially after this past year, I am left with precisely zero bullshit tolerance. That goes double when you spew nonsense advice in the direction of new freelance writers. They hear so much garbage, half-assed advice it's a small miracle some of them survive even a year in business. So bring your BS my way, and I'll leave you shoveling shit while I set you straight.

What if you are one of those newer freelancers though? What if you're exposed to bad advice, told it's the only or best way to succeed, trust it, follow it, and learn the hard way? You wouldn't be the first one.

Fortunately lousy freelance advice isn't all that hard to identify. It sounds too good to be true. It does pass the sniff test. But to point you in the right direction, let's go over some of the common culprits.

Here are six frequent examples of bullshit freelance writing advice, why they can be so easy to believe, and a little taste of reality behind each.

1. You Must [Insert Some Asinine Thing You Don't Have to do Here]

One of the most common types of bullshit freelance writing advice you'll come across is the "my way or the highway" brand of advice. This is when someone says you absolutely must do X, Y, or Z if you want to succeed as a freelance writer.

A popular example is that if you want to be a "professional" you have to write every single day. Well, no, actually you don't have to write every day. You have to write as much, and as often, as it takes for you personally to grow as a writer, meet your deadlines, and reach your goals. That's it.

Why This Advice Sounds Good:

"My way or the highway" freelance writing advice sounds good for two reasons:

  1. It's absolute; it comes across as sure of itself.
  2. It's frequently based on the advice-giver's own experience. And if they're successful (or they've convinced you they're successful), it's easy to believe what worked for them will also work for you. It's already been proven, right? (No. Not really.)

Why This is Bullshit Freelance Writing Advice

As someone who advises freelance writers, I understand the temptation to share my own experiences and tout them as the way to do something. And as someone who was a new freelancer once themselves, I also understand the temptation to take that advice, to try to emulate the career of someone I respected.

But that's a bad idea for one simple reason:

Your career is not anyone else's. Everything depends on your individual market, your rates, your skills, your experience, your credentials, and your demand. A "must-do" for me isn't always a "must-do" for you. And sometimes you'll have to do things others don't -- even though I generally work in insanely comfortable pajamas and that's worked for me, maybe you're one of those folks who must get dressed as if they were going into the office in order to focus and feel professional for example.

On a related note, sometimes you'll see people say any advice involving "never" or "always" is bad advice. I understand where those folks are coming from. (And I've probably said it myself in a well-meaning way at some point before I had the experience I do now.)

There are "always" and "never" situations in freelance writing. For example:

  • You should never lie about your experience or credentials.
  • If you're a new writer getting started today, you should absolutely have a professional website.
  • You should never take on gigs you find morally problematic (this varies from writer to writer of course; for me it includes not promoting drugs or alcohol, gambling, or things like payday loan companies and essay writing companies that help students cheat).
  • There are always better options than content mills. (It doesn't matter if you can find some way to justify working for them to yourself; there are still always better options for those willing to go after them.)
  • You should never put all your eggs in one basket by relying on a single freelance writing client for your income.

"Always" and "never" don't make something inherently wrong, and saying they always do is kind of hypocritical, no?

2. You Have to Pitch to Land Writing Gigs (& Deal with Rejection)

Another freelance writing lie is that you must pitch to find gigs. You have to send queries or make cold calls, and you have to learn do deal with the kind of rejection that comes with this.

No. You don't.

Why This Advice Sounds Good:

Query - rejection - query - acceptance is a pretty common way to think of freelance writing. It's how it often works in magazine writing. And many aspiring freelance writers would love to see their name in print. So hearing career advice based on that single type of project can sound logical.

Plus, common sense tells us a lot of good gigs aren't going to make their way to job boards. And even if they do, there's more competition for those gigs because anyone seeing the ad can apply. Pitching is a way around that competition to some degree, so again, it sounds logical. And that can make it sound like reasonable advice.

But it's not.

Don't get me wrong. Learning how to send effective queries and handle rejection is a great skill to learn. In certain specialties it really is essential even. The problem is when this is given as blanket advice, put on all freelance writers equally -- somewhere it doesn't belong.

Why This is Bullshit Freelance Writing Advice:

Queries or other types of freelance writing pitches are great tools for finding gigs. But they're just that -- tools. And they don't need to be (and probably shouldn't be) the only tools in your arsenal. And in some cases, they aren't necessary at all.

I'm a good example in this case.

I built my career helping clients find me instead using what I've called "query-free freelancing" (a combination of public relations and inbound marketing to build a presence and platform). And every time I've helped another writer do that, they've preferred it. There's something extremely rewarding about clients beating down a path to your door before you have to go hunting for your next gig.

This isn't advice solely from my own career though. Like I said, I've helped quite a few other freelancers do the same. And I've worked with a wide variety of creative and solopreneurs in a PR capacity helping them do similar in an equally wide variety of markets. It's my specialty. And it works.

Look. Pitching can be a great way to start out in any kind of freelance writing. But that doesn't make it necessary. A freelance blogger might land more gigs through a blog of their own. A freelance copywriter might land more gigs through killer sales copy.

Know your market. Know what appeals to your buyers and what will convince them to hire you. Then do those things, whether or not pitching is a part of your marketing plan. And if pitching scares the hell out of you because of anxiety or feeling like too much of an introvert, know that it doesn't have to be a requirement, and you have other marketing channels available to you.

3. You Have to Start at the Bottom

Some say freelance writers have to "start at the bottom" as justification for encouraging them to accept little to no pay for early clips and "exposure."

This is one way freelancers get sucked into things like content mill work or perpetuating the trend in unpaid media that exploits writers (like HuffPo).

Why This Advice Sounds Good: 

As an experienced freelance writer, you might be tempted to give this bad advice because on some level you want newer writers to have to go through what you went through. If you had to work your way up, then watching others "jump the line" feels like cheating. I've outright seen colleagues admit this was their reasoning -- "If I had to do it, so should they."

On the side of a new freelancer, this advice can sound good because A) it's usually coming from someone who's been there and survived to tell the tale, and B) most advertised freelance writing gigs you'll see early on are low-paying, which can taint your perception of what's really available.

Why This is Bullshit Freelance Writing Advice:

This advice is some of the biggest bullshit around the freelance writing community.

So. Much. Bullshit.

You don't "start at the bottom." You start where you are. The only ones who might actually need to start with low paying work are those with no experience, no credentials, and nothing provable to offer.

Chances are good, that isn't you though.

Just because a writer is new to freelancing, it doesn't mean they're new to their specialty area. If you worked full-time in an industry, you have expertise and experience that's worth a premium. So charge for it. If you have life experience that applies to a specialty (professional or not), charge for it.

Starting lower on the totem pole than you really are does nothing but slow you down. And you shouldn't be taking advice from anyone actively looking to do that.

The essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, bullshit detector. - Ernest Hemingway

4. Freelancing is a Numbers Game (Write More, Write Faster, Pitch More)

Some will tell you freelance writing is a numbers game. You have to pitch more. You have to write faster so you can churn out more content or copy. You have to hype up your vanity metrics (like follower counts) to look bigger than you are. You can apply some variation of the "more more more" mentality to just about any area of freelancing.

But this is silly.

Why This Advice Sounds Good:

It sounds like good advice, because we're trained to trust numbers. They can be used to make anything sound logical.

For example, take the issue of writing more, faster. This was a common argument years ago from content mill writers. They'd get terribly upset whenever one of us more experienced freelancers would suggest mills were a bad investment of time.

"But if I can write three articles per hour, I'll make $45 per hour, and that's a great rate!" was the kind of thing you'd often hear.

Sounds okay, right?

Why This is Bullshit Freelance Writing Advice:

It might sound like okay logic. But it was never as simple as the numbers could be twisted to make it sound. For example:

  • $45 per hour is a pretty mediocre rate (keep in mind, freelance earnings are very different from in an employee scenario). So these folks were busting their asses over something that was an early career goal at best.
  • There were plenty of other ways to earn $45 per hour without having to write that much. Marketing to private clients could have had even a fairly new freelance writer earning $50 per post for what a mill would pay $15 for. Try that math again. "But wait," you might say. "Why would I want to spend time marketing if the other gigs are easy?" For starters, at $50 per post, you don't need to find nearly as many gigs (which frees up that marketing time). But on top of that, you don't have to trust that one client to consistently provide enough work for three posts per hour (a problem these folks often bumped up against).
  • Even if you were totally okay with $45 per hour and having to write three articles per hour to earn that... it just isn't sustainable. The funny thing about those writers touting content mills as a super-awesome place for writers? They had a tendency to disappear, and in less than a year. To make enough money for them to feel confident bragging about it, they had to consistently burn themselves out.

So when you're told it's a numbers game... it's not. It's a value game. You provide more value. You charge more. You work smarter, making more while working less. That, or you eventually burn the hell out. Don't do that to yourself.

The same applies to pitching and other "numbers game" arguments. It's not as if there's no truth to them. They're just usually not your best option. Work smarter, not harder. That's one of those things where "always" applies. It's not about doing more. It's about finding what's most effective.

5. All You Need to Succeed is Confidence & Positive Thinking

If there are two things I have no tolerance left for in this world (okay... three if we count bullshit) they would be insta-expert types who build a fake air of authority to manipulate people and make a buck, and the positivity police.

There will probably be a lot of coverage here of that first group throughout 2018 (and the first return freelance writing podcast will likely be a follow up to my insta-expert podcast with Philippa Willitts, this time teaching you how to build a more authentic business reputation for yourself). And there will even be an upcoming post all about the latter group. But let's touch on the positivity police for a moment.

What I so often hear boils down to this:

You just need confidence and happy thoughts to make it.

In other words, have faith in your abilities and think positive things, and a successful writing career will come much more easily.

Why This Advice Sounds Good

Want to know a quick way to make money? Sell a bunch of bullshit books preaching positivity as an answer to life's woes. (Don't actually do this.)

Why does it sound good? Why can so many people make a crapload of money selling the same basic advice under a dozen different new names? Because people are desperate for relief from what ails them. Because people like "easy."

And the positivity police make things sound easy. They make you feel good by telling you to feel good and telling you good things will come as a result of that.

That doesn't even touch on the whole issue of folks not even understanding what real "positivity" and "negativity" mean (something we'll get into in that later post for people who do want to make positive thinking and actions a bigger part of how they build a business).

For now, let's just focus on the typical over-simplified advice to just change how you think about things.

Why This is Bullshit Freelance Writing Advice

Thinking "positive" thoughts is fine and dandy if it leaves you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside and you find some way to channel that (other than taking advantage of other suffering, desperate people preaching the same over-simplistic nonsense).

If you want to succeed, do you need to have confidence? Sure. But that doesn't come out of thin air. It's a result of what you put into your career.

Will having faith in yourself and positively envisioning your future help you get there? Well, telling yourself your work is shit and you'll fail certainly won't help. But neither do happy positive thoughts -- not on their own.

If you want to succeed as a freelance writer, there are no easy ways around the damn hard work it can take.

You learn the fundamentals. You build true expertise (insta-experts are a perfect example of what results from undeserved confidence). And you work your ass off.

Is success guaranteed then either? Nope. But you'll be much further on your way than if you rely on just "positive thinking" to get you from one day to the next. Do you want to get nowhere and be happy about it? Or do you want to build something real?

6. Project X Should Cost $Y

The last bit of bullshit freelance writing advice I'll share with you today has to do with pricing. I'm frequently asked "what should I charge for [insert some specific project here]?"

The person asking wants an easy answer. They want me to pull a number out of my ass. And there are plenty of advice-givers who are happy to do that. Here's why I'm not one of them...

Why This Advice Sounds Good

Similar to the issue of positivity police messaging, this is a case of people liking easy answers. It seems to be human nature to take the path of least resistance (an inclination I've personally never understood, so I have no idea what that makes me).

Thinking in terms of standards is always easy. You can just plug in numbers or tactics or whatever and be like everybody else. No thinking required.

Why This is Bullshit Freelance Writing Advice

Here's the thing with that...

Freelance writing is not a cookie-cutter business. You want that? Go start a franchise.

There are no such things as standard freelance writing rates.

If you have one year of experience under your belt, you're not likely to charge as much as someone with ten years of experience under theirs.

If you're writing your very first press release, you're not going to charge as much as someone with industry background and a history of writing releases that land major media coverage.

If you're writing a sales letter as an experienced marketer with a long history of conversion-generating copy, you're going to charge much more than some generic content writer raising their hand saying "I can do that too!"

How much you should charge depends on a lot of things:

  • How much you need to earn (yes, this matters; and if your target specialty can't support what this figure is, you find another specialty or you find a new market within it);
  • Your credentials and experience;
  • Your specialty;
  • The size of your market;
  • The competition in your market;
  • Individual project specs.

Setting the right rates isn't something you do by saying "well this industry survey says I should charge between $X and $Y," or by yanking rates from a competitor's site without doing a thorough competitive analysis to see how you even stack up.

Again, you have to do real work. I tried to make that easier for you with my freelance writing rate calculator. Use it (in advanced mode ideally -- the link's near the top). Then compare what you need to charge to what competitors with similar backgrounds are charging and see how realistic your rates and market choices are.

This isn't the first time I've written about bullshit freelance writing advice (I covered it for Lori Widmer's Words on the Page blog a while back too -- check that post out for more detail on a few of these examples, and for a couple of new ones).

And I can promise you, this won't be the last time we dig through bullshit here.

We'll not only be revisiting the issue of preaching positivity, what that really means (which isn't always what the self-help types sell you), and how it can both help and hurt your career.

We'll also touch on the issue of mindfulness and the all-to-trendy advice to focus on the present in all things, and again how this can both help and hurt when the advice is taken too far. That was too big a topic to get into here.

So those are coming. And I can probably come up with another ten examples of things you should ignore. But for now...

Be careful about the freelance writing advice you take. What sounds good isn't always as helpful -- or as relevant to your freelance writing career -- as it might seem on the surface.

Have an example of bullshit freelance writing advice that rubs you the wrong way? Share it in the comments and let's discuss.

7 thoughts on “Bullshit Freelance Writing Advice (Why Writers Believe It & What You Really Need to Know)”

  1. Editor’s note: The commenter’s identity has been removed from this comment at their request.

    I just wanted to pop in and say that I LOVE this piece. I’ve seen so much on my facebook freelancing groups and the like where people are told they HAVE to do this, and to refuse mid-level pay when they are starting out, etc. etc. and I see newbie after newbie throw in the reigns and just give up because they’re being told to do things that just don’t work for their particular lifestyle. We have to be able to try different methods, try different tools, and flex our first steps into the freelancing world around our lifestyles.

    If you don’t have time to cold pitch and go after those high-paying jobs cause you need a secondary income NOW, there is no shame in pitching on content mills to get the money flowing then step it up.

    On the flip side, if you have the time and you really have crafted your talent there’s no reason you can’t start aiming high right out of the gate.

    It’s all about flexing and finding what works for YOU.

    I’m going to be writing an opinion piece on this topic soon, from my own perspective and experience. I will reference your post, I think it holds a lot of value for my readers <3

    • I just want to make sure no one misunderstands my post as any kind of support for content mills. There is never a circumstance where they are the best option. They’re fine for hobbyists. No one should feel “shame” for writing anything. But they can do very real damage to a fledgling career and set a writer years back. So can writing for these “blog networks” run by even major publications. I haven’t edited the episode yet so I’m not sure if it’ll stay in, but this latter issue came up in the first return podcast I recorded with Philippa Willitts. Writing for these low-to-no pay markets does say something to editors in higher paying ones. And it doesn’t say anything good. In the episode I mention one major magazine with an online network like this. I’ve heard more than a few writers say they see the web work as a stepping stone to a print gig with them. But a connection to one of their top editorial staff made it clear even they consider the online writers somewhat of a joke, damaging the broader reputation of the publication.

      There are always better options than content mills. Always. Ask around in your network. Join communities where your targets hang out that allow you to advertise services. Offer a limited promotion or sale to push initial orders from new clients. Even use job boards. All of those things can lead to quick gigs. And they can all be far better than content mills. If you absolutely must for whatever reason, try to find ones that let you either ghostwrite or write under a pen name so you don’t risk holding yourself back while you’re trying to make quick money for the time being. And never let making that quick money distract you from longer-term goals. Getting clients coming to you, or landing pitches, only takes too long if you don’t put the work in. I’ve helped writers outright replace full-time incomes doing this in anywhere from just 2 weeks to a few months. That initial stretch can be hard. But the harder you work then, the easier it gets once you get into the groove of things. I’ve seen far too many writers quit because they get so caught up in maintaining the low-paying work that they don’t leave enough time to pursue anything better. Change doesn’t happen on its own. And when it doesn’t come, they either get discouraged or they quit because they burn themselves out focusing on quantity.

  2. I’m in love with this piece. You nailed all these bullshit advice. About pitching-all my writing coaches said it’s a number’s game WHILE many of the people they’ve coached sent hundreds of pitches with no luck.
    I started sending these pitches in March with no luck. It’s about time to do some serious changes.
    Thanks for writing this.

    • Pitching is a trickier one, which is why I noted in the post that there’s at least a little truth to them. With pitching, you have to understand that for most writers most pitches won’t result in a gig. So you have to have an idea of what conversion percentage is normal (and that will vary depending on your type of writing, niche, industry, or target client type). Then you’d work from there. But it’s far from the most efficient use of marketing time unless you’re in a freelance specialty that demands it (think magazines). The biggest problem I have with the “numbers game” element of pitching is what I’ve seen it do to far too many new freelancers who don’t realize the work involved (the unpaid portions especially), the amount of rejection, etc. I’ve watched it drive writers to nearly quit until they learned they do have other, often better, options (many start out thinking that’s the only “right” way to do things, which is ridiculous). So they send pitch after pitch — dozens, even hundreds — and don’t land gigs. They keep hearing the “numbers game” argument and thinking they just need to keep sending more. And more. And more. But what that neglects is that problems are often in how those pitches are written and sent. And when they’re taught to keep sending them and they’ll see results, without help sorting out the underlying issues actually costing them gigs, it’s little more than a waste of time, and one that I’ve seen drive writers out of business. That’s the part I take serious issue with when more experienced writers simply tell newer ones they need to more of what’s wrong rather than figure out how to do what’s best for them.


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